theremedy: (Zoro)
[personal profile] theremedy
Chapter Fifteen

Hang on, Hang on. There’s a twilight, a nighttime, and a dawn

What…time was it? What day? There was an arm over him, hot breathing in his ear. He wanted to turn into that warmth. Press his lips against the steady thump of a pulse. The air smelled like sex, booze and —really bad decisions. Oh shit. Zoro peeled his eyes open to an unfamiliar ceiling with an unfamiliar black cat peering down at him. The arm over his chest was fairly well muscled for someone who didn’t actively fight and the rest of it was attached to the lean bony face of the bartender, half buried under sleep tousled black hair. What was his name? Zoro rubbed a hand over his face. He’d said it. Zoro remembered now in the blackened haze of last night which was riddled with the phrase ‘why the hell not’ turning over in repeat inside his brain. Well this was why the hell not. He didn’t even remember the guy’s name.

Zoro moved the bartender’s arm aside and sat up, wincing at the light that stabbed him through the eyes. He shadowed his eyes with his hand. There were clothes everywhere, crumpled around the hardwood floor and no evidence of what should be there and Chopper would freak out about him not using anything. Well what the yeti didn’t know wouldn’t kill him. Ngh. His head was pounding. He laid back down again, turning on his side and staring at the clock he could just see beyond the cat’s fuzzy bulk. Something something 08. The cat made a soft sound, jumped on the bed and the number 12 came into view.

12:08… Oh hell— He sat up again, peering at the floor, not seeing his jeans and debating the risk of standing up. The bartender stirred and made a noise not unlike the cat.

“What are you looking for, lover?”

Lover. Shit fuck damn it all to hell. But it wasn’t important right now and maybe the guy was just saying that.

“Pants,” he muttered.

“Leaving so soon?”

Yes. No… Maybe. He wasn’t sure. He wanted to tell the guy he was looking for his phone but all the lead up to words jumbled and he just managed to get out:


“Monosyllabic aren’t we?” he said in a hard voice. But then chuckled. “I’ve had those mornings. Your pants are on my side. Hold tight.”

Zoro held tight. Grunting a thanks as the man handed his jeans over. He dug in the pockets until he found his phone. No new calls… weird. But then he felt a sense of creeping dread and went to old calls. And then…old texts.

Sanji: Where are you?!

You: Fucking.

Sanji: Fine

Great. Just…perfect.

On the other hand…maybe it was no big deal. Sanji was a grown-ass man. He could handle it. And it wasn’t as if Zoro had given any details— he hoped. He checked again and saw that was the extent of the conversation. Good. He rested his head back against the pillow and threw his arm over his eyes. Now all he needed was two bullets to stop the headache and he’d be fine.

“Someone waiting for you, huh?” the bartender said and there was a warm hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?”

“Uh… no.” He twisted his head to squint at the guy. Green eyes. Huh. “I’m fine…”

“Not acceptable,” the bartender said, his eyes crinkling up at the corners when he smiled. “I owe you something for having my wicked way with you.” He gave Zoro a puppy frown. “Let me clear my conscience.”

“Coffee,” Zoro said, unable to say no to that face. “Black.”

“Coming right up,” the man said with a wink. “Come on, Sasha. I’ll feed you.” Zoro stared at the freckles on the guy’s back as he got out of bed, the black cat on his shoulder. He looked away, rubbed his face again and then checked the time, trying to make a rough guess of what time he could get back to Sanji’s house. Not that he knew where here was…and he was pretty sure his car was still at The Bull and the Bear but…he could…roughly guess. A few hours should do it. He texted Sanji, asking if he wanted to meet at three, then tossed his phone on the bed and went around searching for clothes. His phone buzzed when he was tugging on his pants.

Sanji: Fine. Meet me at Baratie.

Baratie? Wasn’t he off? Maybe he’d decided to go in or something. Zoro texted back an okay and pulled on the rest of his clothes, checking to make sure he had everything. Keys. Wallet. Addresses for the damn GPS. There were pictures around the room that Zoro didn’t look at, a bookshelf full of well worn paperbacks that Zoro didn’t read the titles of, and a large poster of The Wave right above the bed. Zoro stared at it, cresting, tumbling over. The men in the boat underneath it. Mount Fuji in the background. Zoro couldn’t help but wonder if the bartender was one of those Asian fetish guys. Not that Zoro had ever felt particularly Asian. Not that he’d felt particularly anything.

“Nice, isn’t it?” said the bartender. He came to stand beside Zoro, holding a cup of steaming black coffee. Zoro took a sip, the coffee hitting him straight in the gut. Strong stuff but at least the pounding behind his head was lessening a little. “I got it at a gallery opening back when I went to galleries,” the bartender said and was slipping a hand into his back pocket— Shit. Hand on his ass. Cupping his ass. Zoro nearly spilled the coffee. What the hell was he supposed to do with that?! What was anyone supposed to do with that? Why did people keep grabbing his ass? The guy laughed softly.

“You know, you’re good when you’re drunk but you’re cuter when you’re sober.”

“Not cute,” Zoro muttered. “Just have a headache.” And thankfully the man removed his hand. Holy hell. Zoro swallowed and tried to drain his coffee without burning his tongue. This place was dangerous.

“That’s good,” the bartender said. “If I saw you without a headache I might not let you go.”
Too damn dangerous for his peace of mind. He tossed back the drink and muttered his thanks and then wondered where the door was and if that guy ever stopped grinning.

“This way,” he said, and Zoro followed him, trying not to trip over the cat that seemed determined to thread around his ankles. A part of him wanted to take in the rest of the apartment. Most of him knew better. There were some cheap katana resting on a wall display that felt like less than nothing— not that he could fault the guy for having them because katana were pretty awesome and it wasn’t as if he was using them stupidly.

“There’s the door,” the bartender said, though he was still in front of it. Was he expecting a goodbye kiss? That wouldn’t lead anywhere good. He was twiddling a piece of paper between his long fingers and then smiled and came closer. Zoro backed up, tried to edge around him but the bartender stepped in his way.

“I called a cab for you, too. Just in case,” the man said.

“Yeah thanks.” His back hit the edge of the low couch. The evil smile was back in full force again, playing at the edges of the bartender’s mouth.

“By the way, I’m off tomorrow so—if you’re looking to get drunk.” He stepped in close so Zoro could feel the heat of his body and knew that trying to get away by going over the couch would just be a bad idea. “You should come straight to the source,” the guy murmured, slipping the piece of paper into Zoro’s front pocket. Ah. Too warm hand. The bartender leaned up and Zoro could see the freckles on his nose now before pressing a too warm kiss to his jaw.

“I should go,” Zoro said.

“Okay,” the guy said with a smile, backing away. “See you later alligator.”

“After a while, pe—” Zoro stopped himself before he finished that stupid ritual that he hadn’t said in…a long while. “Uh…I mean… later.” And he made his way out the door, not in a hurry but not slowly either. He was going to kill Luffy for ingraining ‘after a while, penis monster’ into his head.
Finding the door to the apartment building wasn’t too hard because the elevator opened up to it, though finding the elevator had been a time and a half. Soon, though he was out in the fresh cold air and into the cab. After a while he pulled the paper out of his pocket. There was a phone number and the name ‘Sasha’. He ran his thumb over the paper, then tore it until there were only little pieces left.

No. It was a bad idea. Even if it was just…fun. He didn’t need the distraction. He’d already fallen behind in things he was supposed to do. He should be focusing on the people that were in front of him that needed him somehow. Maybe not Usopp. Maybe Zoro couldn’t do anything for him. He was already doing what he could for Nami though— she would hate Sanji being dragged into it. She would be pissed at Zoro for making it happen. He wouldn’t let him die, though. He would make sure he was safe at the end of it all. And Sanji himself—he could help train. That was what he had to focus on. Spend all his energies on. There wasn’t room for anyone or anything else.

“What makes you think I need your shitty help training?” Sanji said mildly. They were standing outside the Baratie and the wind was making things icy, stinging his ears, making his earrings sing. Despite the cook’s voice, he wasn’t fooling anyone. He was tense. Every part of him was an angle and he was jiggling his foot lightly against the wall as he thumbed the ashes from his cigarette. His visible eye was bloodshot and Zoro had a feeling he hadn’t slept well. Zoro should have been there. Should have come back. Had Chopper or Usopp? He didn’t know but he doubted it. He should— say something here. Something to get Sanji riled and release the tension in him but— he couldn’t think of anything. He felt drained.

“Are you sure you’ll be ready?” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “We’re not going up against just anyone.”

“I know who we’re up against,” Sanji said. “The guys who did that shit to Luffy aren’t going to be small time players. Is that all you came for, mosshead? I’ve got work to do.”

He wanted to spar with Sanji, though. He would feel better if he could feel the cook’s growing strength himself. But saying anything like that would just make Sanji think that Zoro didn’t trust his judgment… And it wasn’t far wrong. As strong as Sanji was he hadn’t been on the circuit in years. Could he even remember how strong opponents could be? How tough he would have to be? No, Zoro couldn’t just let it lie.

“Fight me and we’ll see if you know,” Zoro said. “If I wipe the floor with you, you train with me.”

“Not on your fucking life will you beat me,” Sanji said. “You’ve got another thing coming if you think I’ve lost my edge. Just because I’ve been here all this time doesn’t mean I’ve gotten lazy.” His speaking was different, too. It was less blunt force aggression and more like knives, cutting the air with brisk efficiency. Not fighting. Eviscerating. If Zoro wasn’t careful he’d be under them next. But maybe that was what Sanji needed to fight these days.

“Then come on,” Zoro said.

“I’m busy, shithead. Look in there. Do you not see it jam fucking packed with customers? Do you think I have time to dick around with you? No. Happy shitty Holidays and come back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow then?” Zoro asked, feeling a spark of irritation despite his best efforts. Did Sanji have to be this way? Did he really have to? Zoro wasn’t the one who had caused the fight— Well maybe he had in a sense, asking if Luffy could come. Should have known better then that. If Luffy was able to be there he already would be.

“Not tomorrow. It was a metaphor, dumbass. Or the day after that.”

“Can you stop being an ass for two minutes and just tell me when? I’m too tired for this shit.”

“So I gathered,” Sanji said, dragging on his cigarette and Zoro knew the blow was about to come. “I hope you at least remembered her name.”

As far as blows went that wasn’t quite as— Did Sanji not even know—? After all this time? Especially after— Never mind. Forget it.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It probably does to her. But I can see one night stands as your thing. That way you can leave whenever you fucking want and not call.”

“Is everyone here on estrogen except me?” Zoro snapped. He was tired of this damn game, whatever it was, of never knowing what anyone wanted because they were too busy trying to dance around the damn thing.

“You want to say that again, moss for brains?” Sanji said, getting right in his face. “You think I can’t take you on, shithead?” He shoved at him. “Come on. Get your swords and I’ll take you right now.”

Fine he wanted to play this game? Zoro would play. He shoved Sanji back hard. The cook stumbled a few steps and then scowled. Zoro could see him shifting, moving his center of power, knew where he was going to hit, saw the snap of his leg and let it hit his shoulder. It made his arm go numb, but that was it. He’s seen that idiot’s unblocked kicks break bones.

“Please,” Zoro said, grabbing his ankle. Sanji flipped back and tried to tug his leg away but it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t near good enough.

“You know I could bounce your head on the sidewalk like a basketball,” Zoro told him.

“Shut up, fucker!” Sanji snarled, face red. Zoro let him go. An even bigger insult. And blocked the kicks then as they came at him. Right, left, a dodge so he wouldn’t get his nose smashed in. As Sanji fought his kicks were becoming fiercer, sharper, harder to block. There were less openings— and he was right, Zoro realized with a kind of pride—he hadn’t lost his edge. Muscle, maybe. Force. But that could come back with no problem. The spirit was there. High and sharp. Torching everything around it. Zoro skirted around what looked like a patch of black ice so Sanji wouldn’t fall on his ass and just met a kick coming straight for his chin with his forearm, managing to deflect it but knowing it was going to leave a hell of a bruise.

After a long moment, Sanji lowered his foot, then turned against the wind to light a cigarette. Zoro tried not to notice his hand was trembling.

“Asshole,” Sanji muttered, taking a long drag and letting it out. “I hate the sight of your stupid face. Are you coming home tonight?”
Home. Was it really their home? Was it really Sanji’s? Zoro wasn’t so sure. But the question was an important one, anyway.

“Yeah,” Zoro said.

“Going to visit him first?”

“Sure.” For whatever good it would do. But maybe good didn’t matter so much anymore. Maybe just being there was the only thing left to do. The only thing left he could do.

“I’ll meet you there later,” Sanji said, sliding his hands into his pockets and walking, stiffly back toward the restaurant. “Drive me home.”

Zoro nodded— even though Sanji couldn’t see. Zoro knew he didn’t need to.

By the time he got to the Home, it was dark but not late. He hadn’t even gotten turned around but spent some time by the waterfront watching the gulls. The receptionist, a girl he didn’t know, gave him a wide-eyed look as he signed in and he could sense her faint fear, like wired ice on the back of his tongue. As soon as she saw his name, though, she relaxed and her small mouth lifted into a smile.

“Your friends are back there,” the girl said, taking the clipboard back onto the desk. “Miss Nami and Mrs Vivi. There are a lot of you, aren’t there?”

“Yeah.” And then, not knowing what else to do, he gave her a small wave before heading down the white sterile hall. It always reminded him of a hospital. He’d only been in one once in his life and it wasn’t something he ever wanted to repeat—lying in bed with nothing to do but try not to bleed.
Luffy’s room was warm, though. Familiar. Almost a kind of home in an odd sense. Zoro stood in the doorway and watched the two women kneeling on the floor, the parts of the Franky Christmas Tree Type II in pieces around them. This one without the flame throwers. Though Luffy had laughed at the first one and asked if they could make s’mores with it. No one had suspected they’d be able to use it as a getaway car, least of all Smoker.

“He said these instructions were simple,” Nami said, holding up one end of a sheet that, from where Zoro was standing, looked like a giant scribble. “I’m going to kill him.”

“Maybe we should wait until Mr. Franky shows up,” Vivi said. “Or maybe consult with Mr. Usopp.”

“I couldn’t get Usopp back in here with a pitchfork,” Nami said with a sigh. “But maybe you’re right…”
Zoro crossed into the room, picking up the Franky Menorah from where it lay on the dresser and absently looking at the design, wondering when they were going to acknowledge his presence or if they even felt it. They’d both fought in the circuit, he thought, looking at their fragile backs and tumble of hair over their narrow shoulders. They both wore it long now and their clothes were expensive, he knew only vaguely. The blood and bruises of the circuit were long behind them it seemed, but he could see the truth on the faint scar on Nami’s shoulder near the neck or the thin barely there lines on Vivi’s fingers where her Peacock Slashers had left their mark, even years later.

“Maybe we should get a fresh tree this year,” Vivi said, tucking a strand of hair over her ear, wedding ring flashing in the light. Zoro moved into their periphery to set the menorah on the windowsill, pressing the button to ‘light’ the first candle which hovered and flickered like a real flame though it was electronic.

“It would break Franky’s heart. Hello, Zoro,” Nami said without even looking at him. “Anyway why spend money on a tree when we have one?”

“Oh, hello, Mr. Roronoa,” Vivi said. “You surprised me.” She didn’t sound surprised at all. He’d underestimated them, then. That was good. He hoped other people did, too, if worse came to worse. Zoro gave her a nod in greeting and she smiled faintly and returned to Nami.

“You know I could pay for it and don’t mind. It’s just a tree.”

“It’s tradition,” Zoro said. They’d always had that tree. It shimmered with different colors and spun slowly and sometimes played music box Christmas carols on a timing system all its own. Luffy had always been entranced by it and more than once, one or the other of them would find him asleep at the base of it.

“Tradition is important,” Vivi said softly. Damn right it was. Zoro peered over their shoulders, wondering if perhaps he could help. The directions looked even more confusing from here, though so he made himself useful by digging for the nail clippers and sitting on the edge of Luffy’s bed, lifting one of his pale bone thin hands. His nails had gotten long again. Corpses were like that too, he’d heard. Hair and nails grew but everything else rotted slowly away.

Luffy wasn’t a corpse. Zoro could feel the faint heat of his soft hand. He brushed a forefinger down Luffy’s wrist to feel the vein corded there, the slow steady rush of his pulse. This was different from sleep. Different from Luffy sleep anyway. It lacked sprawling limbs or python death grips. It lacked drool and teeth marks and weird positions that made him think Luffy had the spine of a cat.

"I give up," Nami said as another sliver of nail fell away. "Are you still on for dinner?"

"I'd better be," Vivi said with a soft laugh. "I'm paying for it." He didn't get why that was funny but, then he'd never gotten women too well. These women especially.

"Zoro will you pack this away?" Nami said. It was obviously not a question as she was standing, already assuming his answer. He was faintly tempted to say no, but it wasn't as if he had anything else to do.

“Sure,” he said, navigating the curve of Luffy’s thumbnail. It was still strange to see these nails without any dirt under them. Even a little glossy as if that was the part of him trying the hardest to live. He could feel the women watching him as he started to file away the sharp edges.

“You take good care of him, Mr. Roronoa,” said Vivi. It was supposed to be comforting. She was like that. Diplomatic. She had been even with short hair and torn clothes, fighting for her father’s life in the arena. Zoro grunted to say that he’d heard, but he couldn’t accept it. He blew the dust away from Luffy’s fingertips, then lifted his other hand to start on that one, feeling the click of the nails giving under the blade of the cutters, feeling his slow churning pulse.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Zoro,” Nami said, and then before he could even nod. “We should hit that Vietnamese place.” She said to Vivi, tucking her arm around the other woman’s and striding from the room. Damnit. Pushy woman. She could at least have waited for him to agree.

He finished Luffy’s hands, tucked them back against the blanket and went to sit in one of the recliners. The Franky Recliner. It even had his name stitched into the arm, a slightly lighter brown then the surrounding letter with his trademark star. Oddly enough, it wasn’t as if he branded everything and hardly anything Zoro had seen of Franky’s outside their group had his name anywhere. It was like protection in his own way. Stuff. Comfort. Rocket propelled trees. RVs with a ridiculous amount of soft beds and a weight room. All for them. All for Luffy who greeted each new invention with a grin and a poke even if Franky told him not to poke it. All for Usopp who loved to help him tinker and get into the guts of things. For Sanji to get a kitchen and Robin to get a library, Chopper a med closet and Brook a place to store his instruments and a fold out pipe organ that had a fart setting which had always sent Luffy rolling with laughter. He was kind of an amazing guy all told.

Franky had been the last one to agree, too. Which had surprised Zoro for a long time until it finally made sense. Even Sanji had agreed sooner. Even Robin, reluctantly, or seemed to. But Franky had remained silent as stone, watching them through his tiny sunglasses as Zoro told them.

The circuit world had been becoming dangerous. More than normal. New abilities. Bigger fights. Bigger rewards but more dying every day. More disappearing. Twisted corpses turning up in riverbeds.
And despite their best efforts to keep Luffy out, to keep him in school and working for a better life for himself, a life he could live—and not be slaughtered, he kept getting back in. Through helping friends or pulling one or the other of them off into adventures. Into his pace.

Ace had told him. Had asked him. Keep Luffy safe no matter what. Keep him free. Until things could be sorted out if they ever could and the only way Zoro could think to do that—to keep him focused and take away the excitement the rest of the world offered… would be to cut him off. A quick clean break. No adventures. Little contact. At least until he’d gotten through four years of college. Until he was adult enough to have a choice between the arena or real life.

“You’re all for this,” Franky had said, pushing up his sunglasses with his gigantic thumb. “And I ain’t saying it’s wrong or right cuz it’s a little of both. But you’re going to break him, you know that.”

And they knew. Had known. And done it anyway. Zoro had thought it was for the best. Considering how badly they’d lost. How close Luffy had come to death that last time. How close Zoro had and all of them. So they had. To keep him safe. To give him a chance.

They even told Luffy and he’d understood and promised to do his best for four years…but he hadn’t even lasted four months. Calling them. Appearing at the window to the Baratie. Sneaking into Usopp’s room. Anything and everything until they’d finally had to push him. And then a few months later he’d disappeared… and almost six months later Smoker had found him. Shattered. Comatose. Left in a ditch to die. And no one had been there.

No one at all.

Zoro rubbed the grooves on his neck, staring at the tree, still in a mess, its guts strewn across the floor. He moves to put things back, carefully figuring out where they go and placing them back piece by piece. It’s almost like a mantra. A meditation. Everything in its place. From order is construction, from construction is life. He’d heard that once, he couldn’t remember where and had wondered—what was the order in nature? Trees on their own shot up wherever they could, competing for food and light and space. The sun had chemistry in it but there was no one telling the chemicals where to go so that it boiled and lit things. A well swung sword could kill an enemy and that was order, but a flurry of fists and a bloodied nose and some weird understanding could turn an enemy into an ally and where was the order in that?

In the end, they should have trusted him. They should have all gone with him. Fought on. Kept believing in his dream to find a truth that was something other than death or mutilation. Even if it meant dying with him—so long as he was the last one standing— but no because he would be alone again. Alone like he’d been then and like he was now.

Finished too soon, Zoro sat in the recliner and watched Luffy’s pale porcelain face until he couldn’t. Turned on the TV and half watched that but really stared at it without really seeing it. The chatter was annoying but he didn’t turn it off. After forever there were footsteps coming down the hall and Sanji appeared in the doorway, looking pale and holding a styrofoam takeout box.

“Shitty leftovers,” Sanji said, handing it to him before he’d even taken off his coat. Zoro opened it. A whole cut of grilled fish, oiled in some sauce. Steamed asparagus, still glimmering with butter. Yellow rice. And off to the side, a weird vanilla pudding thing with the tiny crunchy marshmallows in.

“This is one hell of a left over,” Zoro said, meaning ‘thanks’ as he pushed the plastic fork from the wrap.

“Some people have no damn taste,” Sanji said. ‘Welcome.’ The fish cut away with ease even under the light pressure of the plastic fork and melted like heaven in his mouth. It was more than he deserved but he ate it anyway for the sake of Sanji’s pride. He watched the cook shed his coat and scarf before twitching the blankets away from Luffy’s still form and doing the exercises, like he did every time Zoro had seen him. Out of hope or duty, Zoro wasn’t sure, but he hoped some part of Luffy could feel it. The touch on his foot. The push on his leg. The rise and bend of his arm.

“Noticed your sword arm is getting a little rusty,” Sanji said around the lollipop stem that looked thin and ridiculous in his mouth.

“The hell you did.”

“Damn right I did, shithead. We’ll have to spar daily just to get you back in shape.”

“If you think your wet noodle legs can handle it,” Zoro said, cutting into the asparagus.

“These legs will make mincemeat of your skull, mosshead,” Sanji said. “Provided there’s anything in there to make mincemeat out of.”

Damn. He couldn’t think of a come back for that.

“We’ll see whose mincemeat.” Okay. It was pretty lame but the point was he’d made an effort. Sanji had won this round but he’d gone down fighting and maybe somewhere Luffy could hear that, too. That they were trying. Failing. But always trying.

Do you know what’s worth fighting for
When it’s not worth dying for

Even though the Miami arena is new, Zoro can tell that this Krieg guy has plans—or, at least is involved with them. The arena is huge, twice as large as even the midsized ones they went to. It’s like an actual stadium with seats stretching up into the darkness and a black ceiling above, crossed with spotlights, off for the moment as the arena fills. It’s—intense. Even his first arena wasn’t this huge, and the thought of the fight, of all those people watching, gets his blood moving hot.

“O—okay guys, s-seriously,” Usopp says and Zoro looks away from the half open door to see the longnose worrying the spangly cowboy had between his hands. “Th-that Krieg guy seems pretty bad. And we’re in his h-home turf. I mean. Not that we should be scared. I’m not scared. But maybe we should have brought a peace offering?”

“No way,” Luffy says, folding his arms and shifting his weight on the afro he’s sitting on and trying to hide. “I hate that guy. He tried to burn down old man cone head’s treasure and he’s an idiot.”

“W-well yeah but you stopped him and—”

“He’s not the kind of guy to take insults lightly, Usopp,” Sanji says, lighting a cigarette and trying to look badass. Zoro’s a little annoyed that it kind of works. “Even if we made an offering that asshole would still want to kill us.”

“Why me? I’m just the announcer guy! So I’m off the hook right? Not that I want to be,” Usopp says, suddenly smooth as he flips his hat on his head. “After all I’m just as much a fighter as you guys—”

“You should enter a match!” Luffy says.

“Almost as much of a fighter as you guys but my talents lie in my voice. Still if you need a hand you can rely on the great and powerful—”

“There’s trouble,” Nami says, clicking her way up to them on heels to high to even be sensible. What was it with women and crazy shoes?

“-great and powerful Zoro,” Usopp says without skipping a beat and patting Zoro’s shoulder. “He’s very dependable.”

“Dependably thick headed,” Sanji mutters.

“Oi,” Zoro growls. He’s not stupid he’s—

“Shut up,” Nami says. “Look!” And she shoves a paper in Zoro’s face, her eyes fierce. It looks like the list of melee combatants. Zoro blinks and takes the paper, wondering what the big deal is. There are a couple of people he knows, more he doesn’t, the Nyaban Brothers he knows by reputation and—himself. Wait what? Was there a swordsman’s division? Zoro flips the paper over and unfolds it— seeing there is and he isn’t on it.

“A mistake?” Zoro asks.

“I doubt it,” Nami says. “I tried to get them to change it but they said it’s fixed. This is horrible…”

It’s an insult then. Still, he won’t let himself be dragged down by it. A fight is a fight and he’ll fight swordsmen in other arenas.

“It’s nothing,” Zoro says.

“It’s not nothing,” Nami snaps, waving the paper under his nose again. “Melee fighters don’t make half of what swordsmen do! That’s more than a ten percent cut in my profit!”

“Our profit?” Usopp says.

“Our profit. That’s what I said.”

“Nami’s cute when she’s stingy!” Sanji swoons. Tch. What is wrong with him? Was he dropped on his head when he was a baby? Repeatedly? Anyway he doesn’t see the big deal. If money’s really going to be that much of a problem….

“I’ll fight harder.”

“Damn right you will. You’re lucky I could put you in the same crew so you don’t have to fight each other.”

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Luffy says, peering inside the afro before plopping it on his head, adjusting it back and forth. “Don’t worry so much.”

“I will worry so much and take that thing off!” Nami snaps, slapping him on the head with her paper. “How do you keep sneaking it in anyway?”

“In my pants,” Luffy says with a grin and Usopp, who is in the process of taking it off of him, drops it. Zoro doesn’t blame him. He knows more than he wants to about Luffy’s underwear habits or rather lack of them.

“Alright well, get ready,” Nami says, twisting her arm to check her watch. “They’re going to start calling the stables soon and after that, Sanji it looks like you’re up second, but you all need to pay attention.” With that she drops her arm and smiles at them. “Good luck and break some legs.”

“And also try not to get kidnapped,” Usopp says and Sanji frowns at him. Nami, too.

“Yes, that too. We’ll all meet here at the end of the tournament before we do anything else. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” they all chime in except for Luffy who says:

“Hey, there’s jerky left.”

Nami rolls her eyes.

“Don’t worry. I’ll look out for him,” Sanji says before Zoro can. Ass. As if it’s his job. Zoro’s been looking out for that little meathead for almost a year now. He knows what the hell he’s doing more than this noodle cook does. After a final nod, Nami clicks away. Zoro feels a twinge of worry, but there’s no one he knows here well enough to send after her.

“Listen,” he says. “We have to keep an eye on her at all times.”

“I’ll take that duty without regret!” Sanji says, saluting like an ass. “But I’m counting on you assholes to watch her while I fight,” he continues, pointing his cigarette at them. “Don’t let me down.”

“O…oi whose going to keep an eye on me?” Usopp says. “I was already trapped by these guys once.”

“Just stay by the cage,” Zoro says. “You’ll be fine.”

“Or shoot their eye with a shitty rubber band,” Sanji says. “It’s not like you’re defenseless.”

“I’d rather be defended!”

“Hey, they’re starting something!” Luffy says and Zoro’s not entirely surprised to see his captain’s upper half almost entirely out the door. He comes up behind him to watch and also grab hold of his vest in case he does something stupid. Sanji opens the door a little wider to come up beside him and he can feel Usopp peering over his shoulder, in fact can see and feel his long nose perched there like the uncooked end of a hot dog.

A kind of small platform is being lowered from the ceiling and the lights are going crazy around the arena floor. The biggest light stays on the guy in the center of the platform, a scrawny looking guy with sequined pants that makes Zoro, squint, a sequined glove and, as if to protect his own eyes, heart shaped sunglasses.

“Holy crap, I know that guy,” Usopp says, his breath hot and moist against Zoro’s shoulder. Ugh. He grabs the longnose by the nose and moves him aside.

“Eh?” Luffy looks back a little. “You do?”

“Yeah,” Usopp says, rubbing his nose and giving Zoro a glare before turning his attention back to Luffy. “I think he used to be Khaladore’s roomie.”

“Hello, Miami!” the announcer says, his voice rolling through the air. “On the count of three you’ll put your hands together for the premiere stables of the Dolphin Dome!” Something like a small metal chakram dropped from a string on his finger.

“He smoked a lot of weed,” Usopp mutters.

“Are you sure that’s all he did?” Sanji says as the roomie guy counts off.


The crowd begins to cheer and clap. Jango, too, who seems to be having a hard time holding onto his microphone and clapping at the same time. Luffy is clapping as well, leaning out of the doorway and cheering and Zoro has to tighten his grip on the idiot’s vest so he doesn’t fall flat on his face.

“Straight from the heart of New Mexico and our hearts as well,” Jango is saying. “I present our special guest, Stable de Alvida!” Them again? He thought they’d have quit already.

“So what’s a stable exactly?” Usopp asks. “I mean I know it’s a fighting group but what’s the difference between a stable and a crew?”

“Stables are sponsored,” Zoro says, pulling back Luffy who is still clapping and cheering. Dumbass. “Usually by the people that set up the arena. They have their own fighters and train them up, sometimes pitting them against each other.” Though he’s not sure if that’s a great idea. He’s already seen one stable fall that way. “They also get perks in visiting arenas. Seating, betting, starting positions. That kind of thing.”

“And crews don’t have to fight,” Usopp says. The Stable de Alvida tromps across the arena floor but there’s no one particularly new or interesting. They don’t have any swordsmen to speak of and even if they did, Zoro wouldn’t get to fight them. Bastards.

“Right. If they end up against each other they can settle who goes ahead without fighting or taking a penalty.”

“Maybe we can just for an asskicking instead, mosshead,” Sanji says, smirking at him. Zoro returns it.

“You have to get your scrawny ass out of D rank before you can even talk about touching me, Curly Q.”

“I don’t need a shitty rank to touch you, bastard,” Sanji gets right up in his face and Zoro’d return the favor only Luffy seems to be determined to get out to the arena to cheer even if he has to rip free from his vest. What is with this idiot?

“Oi, shouldn’t you guys save it for the fight?” Usopp says. “Don’t you want the ladies to see you at your best?”

That only works because Sanji is a moron. Zoro is somewhat disappointed to see the crap cook get a goofy grin and stride away to check his tie in the cracked mirror. Well it’s probably for the best even if it’s the only decent fighting Zoro’s going to get tonight.

“The Dolphin Arena is glad to welcome the rookie stable of the evening,” Jango is saying. “Debuting in their first fight outside of New York New York, the Blue Gull Stable!”

Zoro peers at the fighters. No one he knows, not that he expects to. There are some melee fighters he can tell right off, kick boxing that guy maybe. She’ll be good for martial arts. A swordswoman. Zoro reaches around to hold Luffy by the waist as the cloth starts to give and watches her come out of the shadows, a katana in her hand. He wishes he could feel the sword from here…but all he can do is watch—how she trips over nothing and falls against the pink haired guy in front of her, nearly sending them all over like dominoes. Rookies. Right. The crowd laughs except for Luffy who keeps cheering for some damn reason.

The lights went low now, prompting a hush to fall, and Luffy’s damn voice sounded like a flailing seagull in the stillness until Zoro pops him over the head.

“Ow.” Luffy straightens, rubbing his head. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure.” He’s willing to bet it’s in preparation for Krieg’s stable. He knows he’s right as soon as he sees the flicker of the Baroque Works logo over the screens before Jango says in a near whisper.

“And now for the strongest premiere stable in existence— set to take the world by storm— Our beloved Don Krieg Stable!” The spotlights flare. The crowd roars, surging to their feet, stamping the ground so it seems like the entire arena is vibrating. Krieg is leading his stable, dressed in flashing gold armor. There’s a strange pearl guy there, too. As well as the dark-eyed Gin and the girl with short blue hair who doesn’t look entirely pleased to be there.

“I’m definitely going to kick his ass,” Luffy says, and Zoro believes him even when Usopp points out that he’s not even in A rank. Rank regardless… If Krieg knows that Luffy is here, he’ll want a fight to prove himself—and a fight he’ll get.

This is what he hates about melee, Zoro thinks as he blocks the steel claws of the thinner Nyaban brother, metal shrieking as they slide across the unnamed sword. There’s no subtlety to it. No finesse. Just usually a lot of flailing with specialized weapons. He feels a prickle against the back of his neck and shoves the thin one back, sliding back just in time for the fat one to crash like a wrecking ball in the place where he’d been, making the arena floor tremble.

“You think you’re so good pussyfooting around?” the thin one says, licking a thin trail of blood from his cheek where Zoro nicked him. The fat one stands with surprising grace, the bell around his neck dinging.

“We’ll show you who can put the bell on the cat.”

He sighs around the grip of the Wado. It’s also the puns. He can’t stand the puns.

“Ready?” says thin.

“Ready!” replies fat.

“Mad Cat Rush!” they say together and Zoro works to block their sudden flailing attack, sparks flying. It’s not hard but just this shade of annoying. The random KO rule is first blood—which isn’t impossible but he has to get both brothers at the same time, but of course…he— he gets a foot in the mat and pushes forward, shoving them back and then slashing with both unnamed blades in a tora gari, cutting a thin red line across the fat one’s stomach so he howls and the thin one’s…shirt. Damnit…
The thin one jumps, sensing a small opening and propels himself off Zoro’s sword, slashing claws toward his face. Zoro blocks him with the second unnamed sword and then meets the claws of the fat one with the Wado, taking a moment to prepare before wrenching to the side, making the thin one lose balance and crash into his brother, sending them both tumbling onto the floor.

He only has to get blooded once. Zoro steps back, wiping the sweat from his cheek from the hot lights, listening to the crowd boo around him. He’s not sure if it’s because they don’t like him, the fight, or the fact that he doesn’t want to hit those guys when they’re vulnerable and flailing to get upright again. He has some dignity as a swordsman after all.

As one they attack again and he kind of has to admire their teamwork. The fat one engages him the most while the thin one tries to sneak past his guard. There is the flash of steel and sparks and stinging light bouncing into his eyes from the bell around the fat one’s neck. He wishes he hadn’t underestimated them and put his damn headscarf on when he sees the thin one grin, spotting an opening. Shit. He blocks the flex of claws only for the fat one to lean in. It’s perfect. A risk but— Zoro turns his swords and slashes them both in shallow cuts, feeling a claw slide across his cheek a moment after. The airhorn sounds signaling the end of the match and making him startle a little. He prefers the bell.

“Winnerrrr,” Jango says from his platform. “NYABAN BROTHERS!”

What? Zoro narrows his eyes, jaw clenching around the Wado. He wants to demand a replay of the footage. It should be at least a little obvious that he cut them first! The Nyaban Brothers pull away from him and raise their fists to the cheering crowd. Zoro sighs, cooling the anger simmering in his gut. It’s more punishment. Nami won’t be happy for the money they lose but if they win it’ll be against even greater odds. Or at least he thinks so. Betting is for other people. He flicks the blood from the unnamed swords before sliding them away and then takes Wado, apologizing softly for contributing in such a stupid fight.

“That’s shit,” Sanji says from where he’s standing outside the cage and smoking like a chimney. Zoro grunts, appreciating the thought and agreeing with him but refusing to get angry over it. It’s still kind of surprising to him that Sanji is mad for Zoro’s sake. The blond had one his first two matches with such ease that no one could cheat him out of it— and hadn’t tried— so he should feel good about that at least. Maybe he’s worried, though, Zoro thinks, catching the man looking up to the stands again. He follows his gaze and sees the glitter of Usopp’s hat and Nami beside him.

“I wanna gooo,” Luffy whines. He’s clinging to the cage with his hands and feet like a monkey, his nose pressed through the chain link.

“You’ll get your damn chance,” Sanji says mildly. “Come on. We’d better clear out before we get disqualified or some shit like that.”

Luffy frowns and reluctantly hops down from his perch and they make their way back to their cramped little holding room as two new fighters are announced. It’s someone from Don Kireg’s group against a random cagey old fighter, without a crew or a stable as far as Zoro can tell.

“Is it just me or are all of Krieg’s thugs just shitty kids?” Sanji says. It’s a weird phrase since the guy that drops into the arena isn’t any younger than they are. But he looks less prepared for it. In fact none of the people that he’s seen fight with Krieg’s stable today have looked any older than twenty.

“He must be a hard guy to say no to,” Sanji mutters. So is Luffy, Zoro wants to say, but that’s different. He’s not sure what the curly brow knows but he can tell on the look of the kid-thug’s face. He’s not having fun but…something close to determination. The kid-thug loses, the first of Krieg’s to go down. Ground pin KO rule and he’s nearly smothered by his opponent. When the airhorn sounds and the kid stands, there’s a flickering moment where the cameras rest on his face before flashing the name of the winner. He’s afraid.

‘Loser!’ the crowd starts to chant and it’s picked up by the others, growing and growing until the arena is full of noise. Krieg himself comes onto the arena, raising his hands and the crowd quiets to a dull murmur. He grins wide, hands still raised like hes’ the one that won the fight.

“Don’t worry,” he tells the crowd, voice amplified by some hidden microphone. “No one loses for Don Krieg twice.” The crowd’s cheers grow louder and Zoro realizes that they’re all for Krieg. They must be. What that means he doesn’t know. The boy slumps off the arena— Krieg follows. The next battle gears up and over the sound of the crowd, Zoro swears he hears a gunshot. Sanji curses and lights a cigarette. Luffy’s face is closed.

“Nami and Usopp should stay down here,” is all his captain says.

“I’ll get them.” Sanji stands, a hand in his pocket, hips angled forward. There is a moment of silence and then. “Looks like you have the next fight, mosshead. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Zoro makes a noise to say that he’s heard. It’s too late for that, though. They’re already in over their heads and only going deeper.

The moment he steps into the arena again, he feels someone watching him. There’s tension in the air, he can taste it and he rests his arm absently on his swords, looking around in the shadows. They’re all looking at him, of course, but he’s felt this presence before. The last time he met Krieg. It’s not as strong, but it’s part of the tension, too. Well—let them watch. Zoro cracks his neck and waits for the theatrics from the other side. On the other platform, a shadow that looks like a bumpy mountain blocks the spotlights. A man’s voice says:

“Presenting the Don Krieg’s own, mi-” The man stops. Clears his throat. Hums a few bars like warming up for a musical. What the— “Miss Wednesday,” the man continues. Zoro can fight the growing irritation as the short blue haired girl, because of course it’s her, makes her careful way down the ladder to scattered applause. They don’t like her. At least not much and he’s not sure why but he has a feeling that Krieg is using him against her somehow. The question is, should he take this fight or throw it? He’s not sure. The girl straightens, and smiles in a cocky way though there’s a ridge between her eyebrows.

“You’re in for a surprise if you think you can beat me,” she says. But there’s nothing in her that says she thinks she’s going to win. She’s too tense. Watching him too closely. The random KO rule is rolled. Unconscious and/or down for 10, which is going to be damn near impossible for her.

“Come look,” she says, shifting her arms above her head. “My ultimate seduction technique!”

But what should he do? Throw it? Will that help her or hurt her? He has to decide soon before she realizes that her seduction technique is flawed in ways he can’t understand. Her legs look nice he guesses? But only an idiot would fall for—

“Uwaaah! You’ve defeated my shitty heart oh sweet princess! Any day of the week!” Sanji bellows like a love sick bull and Zoro decides he pretty much hates the guy. Wednesday freezes in place, blinking as if completely startled by this.

“Start the match at any time,” Jango says from above and the chant is picked up by the crowd. ‘Start the match’ ‘Start the match’ Damnit. Assholes. He can’t decide what to do if everyone keeps talking! Wednesday’s eyes narrow and she pulls two long thin flails from her sleeves, segmented and sharp and runs at him, spinning them fast so that they hum through the air. Maybe if he could just—

“If you cut one hair on her head I’ll kick your ass!” Sanji snaps. “You hear me, mosshead?!”

“Will you stop screeching for two damn seconds?!” Zoro snaps back at him.

“PEACOCK SLASHERS!” Wednesday cries and Zoro curses a he sees them both heading for him, springing to the side only at the last minute and feeling the whisper of the blades as they pass against his shirt. No she hit him. He can feel the blood now. She pivots in a liquid movement, flinging both at him again and he draws the first unnamed sword to keep himself from being flayed open. Both long chains wrap around the sword with a clash.

“Uwaaah! Fantastique! Encore! Encore!”

“Shut up!” Zoro yells. How is that guy so damned annoying? How? It’s almost freaking impossible. Wednesday grunts and the sword creaks and whines in his grip. Turning his attention back to the fight at hand he realizes she’s pulling and as she pulls, her blades are cutting into his. Shit! He can’t afford another sword right now.

Gritting his teeth, Zoro tries to slip the unnamed katana free. But the grip of the flails are strong and he can already feel them biting too deep into the metal. Thinking fast, he draws his other unnamed katana, flipping it around and lunging forward, hoping to startle her. She moves as expected, jumping back, the chain loosening around his other sword and he slides it free, flips to the blunt side and lunges again, driving her back so that it at least looks like a fight.

She twists away from the attacks, her forehead tight with worry and he wonders what she’s here for. She’s his age, maybe, or a little younger and—she’s different. Most teenagers who come to these sort of things are runaways, but the difference usually falls along the lines of they know what they’re getting into or they don’t. She’s something else altogether but he can’t put his finger on it.

Well—whatever, it’s not his business. He doesn’t want her to get stupidly shot so that’s the extent he cares about it. She snaps the slasher at him again and he knocks it away from near the pointed end so it isn’t able to wrap around his blade again. The flail spins back toward her and she yelps and lets it go, sending it skittering across the arena floor. As she crouches and whirls the remaining slasher, he wonders if maybe they can throw this fight together. It’ll look bad but he’ll make it up later.

“Listen,” he starts.

“Friendly Fire!” shouts her announcer, still hidden in the shadows above and Zoro jerks to the side at the bark of a gun and he feels a bullet graze his cheek. What the hell!? Were they even allowed to—
He spots the flail coming for him and gets his sword up to block it. The flail wraps twice around his neck and the notched blade and she pulls, he can feel blood creep down the back of his neck and trickle between his shoulder blades. The girl is biting her lip even as she pulls, so hard that blood wells under her teeth.

“Sorry,” she whispers and the flail tightens. Zoro can just hear the crowd roaring over the blood surging in his ears. He can hit her with the second unnamed blade and not knock her out but the longer this fight goes on—

“OI!” Luffy bellows from somewhere behind the cage. “Stop!”

The girl’s eyes widen and the chain relaxes long enough for him to breathe. He makes a purposeful choking noise, falling to his knees and then to the side, hearing the boos but not even caring, just wanting the damn countdown to be over with. This whole arena is a joke.

The numbers crawl slowly by. The flail slips away, the boos turning to laughter, and jeering. He hears his surname a few times, attached to piss poor insults. They’re nothing. The airhorn sounds and he twitches because that thing is damn loud before getting heavily to his feet.

“Winner, Miss Wednesday!” Jango cries. She looks at him and seems to want to say something but he turns away, touching the back of his neck and frowning at the blood there. Well, it’ll heal. His sword however suffered more and he wants to kick someone’s ass for that. Even if it is unnamed.

The others are waiting outside the cage for him. Sanji looks at him and nods faintly before looking away. Understanding. Nami’s eyes are hard and centered on Luffy who is watching the cage without clinging to it this time, the shadows crisscrossing across his face.

“Here, come with me,” Usopp says, trying to guide Zoro back to the waiting room. “I have some bandages in my bag.” He gives Zoro a concerned look when he refuses to move. “We should really get out of here. He’s bleeding pretty bad.” And to the continuing silence says: “Oi, Luffy!”

“I agree,” Nami says. “We’re just losing money and it’s not like Zoro has many shirts to begin with.”

“It’s fine,” Zoro mutters, examining the cuts in his sword and wondering if he can get it fixed. Wondering who would even be around to fix this kind of thing. No one in Miami since they were probably out of Krieg’s pocket.

“I’m going to kick his ass,” Luffy says.

“Luffy,” Usopp says, frustrated and Nami looks at him annoyed. There’s a resigned set to Sanji’s rigid shoulders. It’s impressive, in a way. Irritated they may be or laced with anxiety, they don’t suggest leaving Luffy to face it himself. He doesn’t ask them, too, either. Zoro stands by Luffy’s other shoulder and watches the girl—Wednesday, collect her other flail and leave, nothing triumphant about her stance.

“Well look,” Nami says, voice sharp. “In a few rounds Sanji’s going to be up against one of these Krieg guys. What are you going to do? Just throw every match against them?”

“He can if he wants,” Luffy says, not looking away from the now empty arena. Maintenance crews come on to sand it and sweep away blood. His blood. It makes him kind of indignant really but whatever. He has plenty of blood after all.

“What do you want me to do?” Sanji asks and for the first time, Luffy looks away, his face open as he blinks at him.

“Whatever you want.”

Sanji seems to think about this a moment—and when he’s actually thinking about something, quietly smoking and not opening his big stupid mouth—he actually looks like much less of an idiot than usual.

“I want to win,” Sanji says finally.

“Okay.” Luffy cracks his knuckles. “Then I’ll take care of the rest.”

The fight is intense. Zoro can’t help but be impressed by Sanji’s strength, leaning forward even as Usopp grouses at him and tries to strangle him by bandaging his neck. The guy was fighting the one he had before. The dark-eyed one. Gin. The sound of metal shoes crashing against tonfa rang through the whole arena, and whatever side they were on, the crowd was going crazy over it. The craziest part of it all is that the fight has been going on for fifteen minutes, the random KO rule only calling for a pin for ten seconds, but neither of them had even hit the floor. Luffy sits beside him on the narrow bench, stuffing marshmallow peanuts in his mouth—which don’t taste like either and is wide-eyed and grinning at the whole thing.

“Too bad you couldn’t go all out,” Luffy says, then woops as Sanji back kicks Gin across the arena without even pulling his hands from his pockets. The man’s back crashes against the cage but he regains his footing without much of a pause, scowling and wiping the blood from his mouth with his sleeve. Sanji paces the other side of the cage, loosing his tie with a swift hook of his fingers.

“You think he won’t kill you if you lose?” Sanji says—it’s hard to make out but they are just close enough to hear him over the din. “Why do you even fight for that fucker?”

“You don’t know the first thing about Don Krieg,” Gin says, grinning despite the blood dripping from his nose. He starts spinning the tonfa at the same time, the metal balls whirling through the air. “Or me. I’m not the one whose going to lose!”

He runs at Sanji, low, the tonfa spinning, humming. Sanji remains still then jumps but Gin rises, too, slamming both balls of the tonfa into Sanji’s gut and sending him slamming against the cage. The cook’s mouth opens in a gasp and then he grits his teeth, getting a shoe against Gin’s face to hammer him back a few steps and drop to the ground, wavering a bit but finding his stance and not even falling into a crouch.

“Oh god, I can’t watch. This is worse than the Fishmen,” Usopp whimpers.

“He’s got great showmanship,” Nami says with a sigh, slumping onto the seat. “It’s wasted on a place like this. Why does it keep turning out this way?”

“He’ll win,” Zoro says. Since Gin is already tiring even if he doesn’t know it. His movements are getting slower and becoming blurred and Sanji’s still as sharp. Zoro has the feeling that he’s the kind of guy who is in top form until he drops dead. There’s something to be admired about that.

“Who cares if he wins,” Nami says with a flip of her hand. “I already lost plenty of money on you and who knows how they’re going rig the betting against this guy. Do you know how much it cost us to even get in this tournament? No—” she held up a hand before he could even open his mouth to answer. Not that he would have. “I know you don’t. It was a lot. Twenty dollars a head is a ripoff.”

“There’s more to life than money,” Zoro mutters. It’s just so damn base. Doesn’t she have a hint of spirituality in her?

“Please. Tell me that when you’re out of gas and out of food.”

“I can hunt. And push the car.”

“You do that then,” she says mildly, stealing the soda back from Luffy and sipping it.

“That’s unsanitary,” Usopp says.

“Do you really think he needs the sugar?” Nami asks blandly.

“Good point. Hand it over when you’re done,” Usopp says in the same tone. Tch. They shouldn’t even let him drink the damn stuff to begin with. It was all sugar, had no nutritional value and would only rot his teeth in the end. Had they ever tried to get Luffy to a dentist? Zoro hadn’t but he didn’t want to be the one dragging him there either. All those drills and… ugh. He represses a shiver and turns his attention to the fight so he won’t have to think about it.

Sanji had gotten even faster. Pushing Gin a little further with each kick. Zoro could imagine the hits even as they were blocked by metal, through the reverberation he could almost tell how hard they were and it made his fingers twitch. He wanted a fight like that. Like it how it used to be against Kuina. The snap of shinai, the taste of sweat and nothing outside it. Just a good clean fight, muscles straining and burning.

The blond kicks one of the tonfa away with his toe and then snaps the same leg back getting the opposite tonfa with his heel. He has the perfect opening to hit Gin’s neck or face or chest but instead drops his foot, pivots on it and slams a side kick to the man’s ribs, sending him to the ground and skidding to the fence but not into it.

“Go home, kid,” Sanji says, but that is the wrong thing to say. Rage crosses Gin’s face and he coils himself to his feet and toward Sanji. Fast now. Almost faster than Sanji can keep up. He’s hit once in the face by the tonfa, stumbling back and then kneed in the gut before crashing to the mat.

“One!” shouts Jango even though he just landed. “Two! Three!”

Sanji stirs like he’s going to stand and Gin charges forward as if to stop it. Instead of going forward, though, Sanji goes back in a liquid movement, pushing up with his hands to slam his heels into Gin’s chin to send him arching back and crashing against the arena floor, skidding a few feet away. Sanji hops to his feet, spitting some blood over his shoulder. He straightens his tie, picks up his jacket from where he threw it against the fence and pulls it on with a flare before pacing over to Gin. The man hasn’t moved and Zoro realizes the man is unconscious.

“Sorry,” Sanji says to the silence of the arena. “I’m not going to lose to a shithead like you.” He lights a cigarette and takes a draw, before lifting his arm, not looking as he points his smoking cigarette at the platform.

“Start the shitty countdown.”

Even still there’s a pause before Jango counts. Stuttering at first and without the enthusiasm he had before. Slowly, too. Cheating ass. But it doesn’t seem to matter how slowly he counts or how long he waits until saying one. Gin stays down.

“W-winner Black Leg Sanji,” Jango says as if even he can’t believe it. Sanji lowers his arm, flexing it a bit as if loosening his sleeve before putting the cigarette back in his mouth.

“Damn right it is.”

Zoro feels a little swept up in it all. Even when he beats guys he just beats them. But there’s something about the presentation of it all. It’s—

He narrows his eyes. No… The stadium is too quiet. A few people who had cheered are hushed. Zoro stands, sliding his swords into the holder at his side.

“Z…Zoro?” Usopp says. Zoro says nothing because there is nothing to say. Just wait and watch. Gin stirs just as Krieg himself comes into the arena, light sliding off his armor. Sanji moves aside as Gin hobbles to his feet, confronting his stable master, but not so far away so he can’t interfere should something happen. Idiot better not get himself shot.

“We don’t lose in this stable, Gin,” Krieg says.

“It was just on-”

Krieg backhands him. The metal of his glove ringing as Gin stumbles to the side, but stands upright again, blood flowing from his mouth, dark eyes blazing.

“—once in two years,” Gin says.

“Gin!” someone cries from the audience.

“Commander!” And the crowd takes up his name like a dull roar, his title. Just how many people are here for Krieg? Zoro rests his hand on Wado, feeling its stillness. From behind him he hears Nami stand.

“Let’s go, Usopp,” she murmurs and then louder. “We’ll meet by the car.”

“Why are we—” Usopp starts. Then swallows. “Yeah best idea. Do some reconnaissance. We’ll— Hey wait, where’s Luffy?”

What kind of question was that? Luffy was ob—

Wait, where the hell did he go? Damn he was slippery.

“Never mind that,” Nami says. “Come on.”

Good. They should get out of her. Already Krieg is talking the crowd, arms raised.

“Who is the strongest?!” he roars at them, his voice carrying so loud the microphone squeals.

“We are!” the crowd roars back.

“Who will rule the world?!”

“We will!”

“So you see,” Krieg says. “There’s no room for weakness. But I’ll give you one chance to redeem yourself.” There is the whirring of machinery and a trap door on the arena slides back. Something from below is being rigged up slowly. Zoro looks around for Luffy, wondering if the idiot needs help or has gotten himself lost or stuck somewhere and spots him finally, sitting on one of the platforms, crouched and looking down. Waiting for the right moment? Maybe—

Zoro’s attention turns as he feels a broiling anger, not his own. Something so intense and deep that it stirs in the pit of his gut. A huge cage has appeared on the arena floor and something inside of it—something is growling, low and deep, the sound vibrating in the air. Even Gin seems pale and startled by whatever he can see inside.

“Wh—what is that?” Gin stammers. Krieg grins, lips pulled back from his big square teeth.

“We’re a stable after all. Before we let it out, though—” and he makes a movement and pulls two pistols from his belt, pointing one at Gin, the other at…Sanji. Shit hasn’t that idiot moved yet? Doesn’t he notice? They’re both staring at the cage wide-eyed and Zoro starts forward to interfere.
“Let’s get some blood in the air."

There is a fierce yell, and Luffy crashes into the man from above, slamming his feet down on Krieg’s arms, making the shots go wild though Gin falters as one strikes his leg.Zoro slows to a stop, uncertain whether or not to jump in. Sanji is unhurt it looks like and is going over as if to support Gin who is bleeding on the arena floor.

“Don’t hurt my nakama!” Luffy howls, clenching his hands into one fist and smashing the man over the head. Krieg yelps and reaches up, grabbing Luffy by the back of the neck and throwing him off his shoulders. Luffy slams against the top of the cage, rolling a bit on its surface but getting to his feet. Fists clenched.

“Who the hell do you think you are?!” Krieg snaps. “Release the—oof”

Luffy is running the length of the cage and pushes off the end, sending it screeching back as he hammers both fists into Krieg’s gut, sending him crashing back into the metal fence. The sound of his fists striking the metal fill the air, almost heard above the sudden volcanic roar of the stadium. Zoro slides his thumb under Wado’s guard as he looks at the howling faces.

“Bastarrd!” Gin yells.

“Stop it, you shithead!” Sanji snaps. “You’re going to kill yourself!” The cook is holding Gin back, hands fisted in his shirt as Gin tries to break free, blood spilling down his leg.

“Beat him, Don Krieg!” Gin cries, blood on his mouth. It’s taken up around the stadium and people are standing in their seats, starting to come into the aisles. Sweat slides down Zoro’s temple as he sees the glint of weapons. He moves closer to the arena, keeping an eye on it, an eye on them, ready to cut an escape route at a moment’s notice.

“Luffy!” Sanji cries.

Krieg has one hand in Luffy’s hair, pulling his head back with one hand and punching his face with a metal fist. Zoro’s hand twitches against the Wado and he grits his teeth. Luffy is still grabbing onto Krieg’s wrist with both hands, knuckles white and veins taut. As soon as he lets go or goes limp Zoro will—

But it’s Krieg who lets go, punching Luffy hard in the gut and sending him sprawling back against the mouth of the cage. A clawed hand snakes between the bars and grabs Luffy’s stomach and Luffy yelps. Shit! Zoro grabs onto the fence, ready to cut through it but Luffy gives him a quick look with his one good eye. Not yet. Damnit, Luffy! Zoro grips the fence and can feel it cutting into him, he’s vaguely aware of Sanji fighting Gin again in the background—only this time Sanji trying to get to Luffy and Gin keeping him away.

“Now you see my power,” Krieg is saying, but his voice doesn’t matter. Zoro strains to hear Luffy who seems to be talking to the yellow eyed thing in a low voice. It’s hard to hear what he’s saying but the claws against his stomach flex and then relax.

“Quake in fear, boy!” Krieg bellows. Luffy looks up at him and sticks out his tongue.

“Make me, stupid.”

Krieg’s face goes mottled red. He draws back his armored fist and sends it crashing toward Luffy’s face. Luffy rolls out of the way, dodging by a frog’s hair and Krieg’s fist slams against the cage bars instead, denting them inward. The large clawed hand slips out and grab’s the man’s wrist, blood welling under them and Kreig’s face goes from red to white. Luffy jumps on top of the cage again, pulling at something on the roof of it.

“No-!” Krieg says. “Don’t—! You don’t know what you’re doing—!”

“He doesn’t like you either,” Luffy says. “And I’m going to let him out.” He’s pulling at a pin of some kind. The lock. How can he trust whatever that is? Everything seems to go quiet as he pulls the pin and drops it on the floor with a chiming crash. Zoro can hear his heartbeat throbbing in his ears.

“Attention Dolphin Arena patrons!” says a clear direct voice from above. What the hell?! Zoro looks up to see the girl from the bird or whatever stable, standing in the golden platform that Jango’d been on.

“Oh hey it’s the clutzy girl,” Luffy says.

“Oi! Don’t be rude, asshole!” Sanji says in the distance.

“Who the hell are you?!” Krieg snarls up at her. The woman seems to take no notice.

“It’s come to our attention that several illicit activities going on on the premises. As well as quite a few missing persons. Therefore!” she slams her hands down, the squealing feedback loop making him wince. “You’re all under arrest!”

“ARE YOU FREAKING SERIOUS?!” Zoro roars along with the rest of the arena. Luffy’s laugh breaks through it all.

“You’re really kind of dumb, huh?”

Then all hell breaks loose. The cage bursts open, sending Luffy flying back and a huge jaguar—thing stands up on its hind legs, slamming Krieg against the fence. Gin lowers the gun at Luffy and Sanji kicks it away— men with rifles come down through the stadium and the crowd roars and crashes down around the arena like a tidal wave. Zoro pulls out Wado and meets the blade of a man who is coming at him from behind. He takes his unnamed sword and splits the notched scimitar with it, feeling the clang of metal. The man stumbles and Zoro slashes a cut under his guard, drawing a red line across his chest before whirling and doing the same to the fence. Men and women are crashing through it already. Converging on the arena. He sees Luffy ringed by them, fighting and then going under. Sanji goes for him but it’s too much for even him.

Zoro slips Wado into his mouth, unsheathes his third sword and charges, cutting a rifle out of a man’s hand, sending a second to the ground. A huge man with what looks like a thick dinner plate on his chest steps in Zoro’s way, clashing hand shields together.

“You’ll never get through the Pe—”

Zoro keeps running, cutting an x through the dinner plate and feeling the slide of skin just under his blades. The dinner plate guy falls back and Zoro jumps, pushing off his falling body and head to land in the crowd surrounding Luffy.

“Tatsu Maki!” he snarls, turning himself into a spin and using the force of his blades and his will to send the men crashing into the arena all around him. Sanji kicks away a guy who comes running back as Luffy gets to his feet.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Sanji says and Luffy nods.

“This way,” Zoro says. He can sense the exit is just through there. It’s through the thickest knot of people but—

“I’m not following you, shithead! Are you crazy?!” Sanji snaps. What the hell does he mean by that? Zoro’s cuts two guys away and shoves his face in Sanji’s.

“You trying to say something, damn cook?!”

“I’m flat out telling you, you’re a directionless idiot,” Sanji snaps.

“Oi! Stop!” Luffy says and takes off, running after the jaguar —thing who is tearing after Krieg. Damnit, they don’t have time for this. He takes off after Luffy, Sanji close at his side— though it’s hard work keeping guys off that reckless idiot who only punches what’s right in front of him. The jaguar slashes at Krieg again, splitting claw marks into his armor.

“Oi! You said you wouldn’t kill him! Stop! Stoop!” and he slams into the jaguar man from behind, sending him sprawling. Krieg disappears into a dark room, slamming the door behind him and the jaguar man pulls himself to his feet, slamming against it, claws screeching over the metal.

“He’s not the one that hurt you, cat guy! Not this way!” Luffy is saying, trying to pull at the thing’s shoulder, but the jaguar isn’t paying attention.

“Oi, Luffy! Let it go!” Sanji says but Zoro shakes his head, instead turning so that he’s at his captain’s back, cutting people aside. Sanji curses and does the same. They have a small ring around them after a while but it doesn’t stop people from coming.

And then— he feels it. The whisper of cold. A group of men scream and Zoro can see a knot of them flying into the air. And then…he can almost trace it if he squints. Something is coming toward them. He can tell by the trail of men falling, half seen in the flickering lights. After a moment, Sanji sees it, too.

“Luffy… Damnit!” the cook says, closing ranks with Zoro. He hears Luffy yell and out of the corner of his eye Zoro can see Luffy wrestling with the thing, punching it hard in the gut. He’d better win. Or at least not die.

“Cover me a second, Cook,” Zoro says as the trail comes closer.

“Right.” Sanji takes over both sides and Zoro quickly unties the cloth from his arm and ties it around his head. Whatever is coming is using a sword and he can feel it from here. Feel it but not. Like the whisper of blood from a cut you didn’t know you had, seeping under his skin. He clenches his teeth around Wado.

A man with gleaming eyes comes out of the dark. Some men rush to attack, or get away, one attacks the man with a sword but he brushes them aside without even seeming to move. Zoro slides into a crouch, bringing up his swords for an oni giri. He can taste blood in his mouth. It’s not going to be enough but…

“Oni!” he starts, charging forward as Sanji pushes forward the same time.


The man spares them a glance.

“I’m not here for you,” he says, voice liquid ice. Zoro is slammed aside by nothing he can see, sprawling and rolling a few feet, pain lancing through his arm as it’s wrenched from its socket. He struggles to get to his knees, still holding Wado between his teeth.


The jaguar is down but Luffy is standing in front of him, arms spread, guarding him against the guy with the piercing eyes and the long black sword that hasn’t moved from his back. Shit. Shit!

“Move,” the man says simply.

“I won’t let you kill cat guy,” Luffy says, his mouth in a stubborn frown. “Or Krieg.”
The man seems to regard Luffy as if he has no idea what to make of him.

“I have no interest in your friend,” the man says. “Krieg has a substantial bounty.”

“But you won’t kill him.”

“Why would I need to?”

That seems to satisfy Luffy and he steps away, dragging jaguar guy with him who is starting to stir, almost, shrink it looks like. Zoro gets to his feet, not able to tear his eyes away from the man—the swordsman— there is no blood on the black blade but Zoro can feel it all around him. How does he do that? What makes him so strong? Zoro wants to see him fight. Wants to go against him. Test his strength against a swordsman. A true swordsman. He has to be! A swordsman even in this time—

“You—” Zoro says, but can’t think of anything else. The man turns the yellow eyes on him, fixed like a hawk and Zoro feels his palms sweat. He wants to challenge him even as a wash of cold fear chills through him. It’s fear but exhilarating. A match he can’t win maybe but a fight. And maybe a death that will be a swordsman’s death. Harsh and noble and edged with steel.

“Don’t be so quick to die,” the man says. Or Zoro thinks he says. He can’t remember a voice or maybe it’s the voice that sinks under his skin.

“Zoro!” Luffy says, pulling him away, dragging his attention. Zoro looks away for an instant and loses the sensation. The swordsman steps ahead and cuts his way through the wall seemingly with no blade at all.

“Pay attention, shithead!” Sanji snaps. Zoro blinks as the cook kicks an attacker in the face. Shit. Right. He pulls the cloth off his head so he can see better and ties it back around his arm.

“Are we bringing cat—” Zoro stops. The jaguar thing isn’t there anymore. What— “Did he get away?” He looks over the seething mass but even among the weapons and shadows he can’t see a nine foot tall jaguar thing.

“Yeah but that’s alright,” Luffy says. Sanji makes a face between pained and disgusted before lighting a cigarette. Like he’s seen something or remembers something about that guy.

“Let’s go!” Luffy leads the charge again and Zoro takes a second to collect himself before following. One arm is still numb but he still has the other and his jaw so it’s not too much of a detriment. He wonders how the hell Luffy even knows where he’s going in this crowd and wouldn’t put it past them to be running in circles. He turns sharply earring side and starts charging forward as if he sees something and Zoro spots the blue haired girl in the shadows of a doorway. Once they get there, Sanji’s too tired to do much more of a quiet bleat of affection at her for which Zoro’s eternally grateful. She murmurs something in Luffy’s ear before pointing.

“Go straight that way. There’s a back exit hidden behind some shipping crates,” she says.

“What about you?” Luffy says, already stepping in place to run. She smiles at him but it seems strained in the dim light.

“I’ll be alright.” And with another quiet wave, she runs in the opposite direction.

“Okay! Good luck!” Luffy calls after her before running down the hall. Zoro shakes his head and follows. He has no idea what the hell is going on. But Luffy seems to know and that’s all that really matters.

“How can you guys get messed up so quickly?!” Usopp says a little while later when they’ve gotten some miles between them and the arena and have pulled over on the side of the road in a thankfully alligator free parking lot. It’s started to rain and the tiny fingers of noise on the roof is soothing as Luffy helps push his shoulder back in it’s socket.

“How do you think, shitty longnose?” Sanji says, coming in from the rain with cold wet bottles of water from the cooler. “For you, sweet Nami,” he says, presenting the first to her though she barely has a scratch on her. Figures.

“Ready, Zoro?” Luffy asks and Zoro shifts his weight and grits his teeth at the final pull. There is a snap of pain and his arm feels back to normal. Damn. He rotates his shoulder a bit before taking the bottle of water from Sanji and twisting the cap off.

“Anyway what happened to you two?” Luffy says, getting on his knees and peering into the backseat. “You guys disappeared pretty quickly.”

“Mmm well,” Usopp says, rubbing his chin. Zoro closes his eyes and leans his head back against the window, shifting so he can stretch his legs into the well on the passenger side.

“First we were so scared we didn’t know what to do. But we went bravely on and went into this passage filled with giant spiders.”

“What really?” Luffy says, excited.

“Yes, really,” Usopp says.

“No really!” Nami snaps. “That’s too creepy to even make up!”

“Yeah don’t joke about shit like that!” Sanji says.

“Oh fine, uh, centipedes!”

“Even worse,” Nami says.

“I don’t want to hear it!” Sanji snaps. “Pick a fire breathing monster or some shit like that.”

“That’s not creepy that’s terrifying,” Usopp says and Zoro can feel the brush of wind as Usopp chops his hand through the air. “Anyway it’s not really believable.”

“There was nothing in the hall but hall,” Nami says sharply. “And a few guards.”

“Which I bravely dispatched with a single rubber band. I said…”

The story must have went on. Zoro was sure it did because it usually did but he fell asleep for most of it. Dreams a bit about that guy and wonders who he is. How he can have such presence in this day and age. Zoro hasn’t met another swordsman like him outside of…her. Most of them are just in it for cheap tricks or sport…and he guesses it is sport these days but it’s not in his heart what he wants it to be. Somehow that guy has found a way to make it mean something. What she’d always wanted. What she’d always been looking for.

Luffy’s foot hits his leg and it jars him awake again. The water bottle has fallen on the floor and he picks it up and takes another sip, blinking at the rain outside as Usopp’s story winds to a dramatic close. If Luffy’s eyes get any wider they’ll fall right out of his head. Zoro nudges his foot with a leg in passing affection and takes another sip of water.

“Anyway, all’s well that ends well,” Nami says with a smile, leaning back and cradling a duffle bag against her chest. Hmm. Zoro raises an eyebrow.

“You seem content.”

“And why shouldn’t I be?” Nami says. “After all, we’re all alive aren’t we?” There she was cuddling the bag again. Really suspicious.

“And with a cool two grand to go along with it,” Usopp says, rubbing his fingers together in the money sign.

“Eh? Really?!” Luffy says with a grin. “A grand of what? What? What? What?”

“What do you think?” Nami says, unzipping the bag and revealing… a lot of green. Damn.

“Oh, boo.” Luffy sits back. “That’s not interesting at all.”

“It’s interesting to mee…” Nami says, cradling the bag like it’s a baby. “After all, I had to liberate our money in case Luffy decided to burn it again. And since they were all put under arrest, I thought, why not take a little more?”

“Oi, don’t act like you knew that beforehand,” Usopp says dryly and Nami giggles, sticking out her tongue.

“So now we owe you less,” Zoro says, finishing off his water.

“Like hell you do.”

“What?!” That’s— How can she even say— That’s a definite grand that she has in her hand right there and—

“This is the money I’ve rightfully stolen—and not anything you earned and in fact you lost money for me.”

“You— That—” Damnit… She was such ah—

“Ahh Nami-swan is so resourceful!” Sanji coos, wiggling in his seat. “Let me be your love slave for life.”

“Love idiot maybe,” Zoro mutters.

“Speak all the shit you want, mosshead,” Sanji says, voice hard again. “It’s a man’s pride to be an idiot for a lady.”

“Then you must always be proud.”

“You wanna say that again?” Sanji growls, gripping his shirt.

“Didn’t you hear me the first time?” Zoro said mildly. “Not surprised.”

“That’s it—! You and me outside!” Sanji snaps. He grabs Sanji’s shirt back because damned if he’s going to even let the guy one up him.

“If you think you can take me then come on.”

“Knock it off! We’re running out of bandages!” Nami snaps bright flashes dart behind Zoro’s eyes as her fist cracks into his skull. Shit! She hits hard. How the hell does she even manage it?

“Anyway,” Luffy says. “I wanna go to St. Louis. Is it close?”

“St. Louis?” Nami says, blinks. “Missouri?”

“I have a great uncle’s cousin’s aunt’s room mate that lives there,” Usopp says.

“Yeah,” Luffy says. “Where the arch is.”

“It’s not that close but there’s nothing stopping us from going if you want.”

“Yeah I wanna.”

Zoro wonders why there. Why all of a sudden? It seems too direct to just be off hand. Maybe it’s something the Wednesday girl said to him. Well—he doesn’t know and it doesn’t matter. So long as that’s where Luffy is going, Zoro is going to follow.


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The Remedy

March 2017

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